August 19: Faceless

#19August 19: Must a portrait contain a face?

Today, in between rushing between family commitments in Bendigo and Castlemaine, I attended an exhibition featured in the newly launched 2017 Ballarat International Foto Biennale under the new directorship of Fiona Sweet.

I’ll drop over for more of the shows as the festival continues, as I was there today specifically for the opening of MAP Group’s Beyond Borders project.

It was the ‘second instalment’ of the exhibition held at the previous, 2015, Ballarat International Foto Biennale, and was again located at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E). The venue is on the site of the Eureka Stockade at which miners fought government troopers. Those who follow Australia’s reprehensible record on justice for asylum seekers and refugees, and who realise the political capital gained with mercilessly ‘tough’ stances on ‘illegal immigrants’ by those on both sides of parliament, will understand the irony of manifesting such a display here.

Installation shot of MAPgroup’s Beyond Borders at the 2017 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, in the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E)

I’ll give a rundown of the show when I can go back and view the works properly – Beyond Borders is held in a fairly small gallery and it was crowded. What was clear was the success of the presentation format that underlined the photojournalistic nature of most of the work; photographers’ works were presented on vertical text panels thus presenting each story in words and pictures.  These panels, suspended from steel cable, surrounded the viewer in the windowless circular space with a single opening into the M.A.D.E. cafe. In such a somewhat claustrophobia-inducing space the experience is confrontational, the more so, I expect, once the venue is clear of the opening crush.

Justine Varga, Maternal Line, 2017, chromogenic hand printed photograph, 153 cm x 125 cm framed

Before I entered, I encountered the celebrated veteran photojournalist Andrew Chapman, whom I’d not seen for some time. Ever the mischevious provocateur, he was just asking me my opinion of the Olive Cotton Award controversy surrounding Justine Varga’s winning photograph Maternal Line (2017) when we were joined by Alison Stieven-Taylor (blogger at

Her companion, whose name I did not catch, was unblinkingly dogmatic in his assertion that portraits must have faces and that Varga’s submission was not a portrait. I expressed my disagreement, suggesting that the notion of the portrait was up for redefinition.

Alfred Stieglitz (1917) Georgia O’Keeffe—Hands, platinum print 22.6 x 16.8 cm

It’s a full hundred years since Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) made this platinum print after his first portrait session with Georgia O’Keeffe, around May 1917, when she journeyed to New York to see the second solo show of her drawings and watercolors at Stieglitz’s gallery 291.

O’Keefe later wrote “A few weeks after I returned to Texas, photographs of me came. In my excitement at such pictures of myself I took them to school and held them up for my class to see. They were surprised and astonished too. Nothing like that had come into our world before.” That an expressive portrait might be made without including the sitter’s face was then novel, but not now.

Alison’s and Andrew’s opinion was that the judge’s decision was unfair to other entrants, Andrew saying he wondered where it left him and other ‘traditionalists’ who might want to enter this or any other portrait prize in the future.

That might be fair enough if there were any specifications made by the administrators of the prize. So I checked. The Olive Cotton Award, though not a photographic equivalent of the Archibald (though the latter does include an overwhelming number of photo-realistic ‘renderings’ of photographs, not all have faces), only requires that entries must be:

A new portrait completed since 1 April 2015, owned and created by the artist; not previously exhibited (including online but excluding the entrant’s personal webpage or social media platform), shown in competitions or awarded a prize;

Photographic, archivally sound, still and two-dimensional;

Within the size limits and able to be hung on or pinned to Gallery walls. The Judge will be looking for excellence in photographic technique, creativity and originality to the standards prescribed by the Director, Tweed Regional Gallery.

The etymology of ‘portrait’ is not definitive in terms of the inclusion of a face. It comes to English via the French from the Latin protraho; ‘I drag, pull, draw or bring forth or out (of a place)’, but more relevantly means ‘I bring to light, discover, disclose, reveal or expose’, from whence in French derives portraire, with no more specific meaning than the Latin except that it came to be applied to representations (of anything).

I cannot find anywhere a statement describing “the standards prescribed by the Director, Tweed Regional Gallery, ” so I assume these are conveyed to the judge verbally and in this case the judge was Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, Dr Shaune Lakin, and he decided, from the criteria and his instructions, to choose a portrait without a face. His selection of Varga to win the $20,000 adds to her pedigree of achievements including Winner of the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award 2016, and ruffled some photographers’ feathers.

As with all such prizes and awards, especially where there is only one judge, the gong may fall to a perfectly traditional portrait next time.

What if we asked Olive Cotton herself about the need for faces in portraits? Eighty years ago on her camping trips to Culburra beach with Max Dupain she produced this portrait of him. Her own photography was radical for the time and for Australia, isolated as it was then from the mainstream experiments in Europe and America of the 1930s.

Max Dupain with his cameras by Olive Cotton from Camping trips on Culburra Beach by Max Dupain and Olive Cotton 1937
Olive Cotton (1937) Max Dupain with his cameras, 30.7 x 22.6 cm, from the “Vandyke Album” containing pictures made on camping trips on Culburra Beach.

The “Vandyke Album” of 108 photographic prints, 30.7 x 22.6 cm or smaller, contains pictures made by the couple and provides a context to Australia’s most iconic photograph, The Sunbaker with an alternative to Dupain’s preferred version which had unclasped hands, as well as a shot of the subject, Harold Savage, lying in the same position seen from above and showing his face.

The sole print of this version is in this album and the negative is lost. Is either of them a portrait?


Must a portrait include a face? But had I remembered, the answer was in the exhibition in the very next room, and even on the poster for Beyond Borders.

I refer to Jim McFarlane’s series, shot in Gaza in which his subjects face away from the camera, that puts the lie to the idea that a portrait MUST contain a face. McFarlane calls his pictures ‘Anti-portraits’, but portraits they remain, as much as any in documentary photographs of people we have never seen or are never likely to meet. Would McFarlane have been able to photograph the faces of these people, fearful as they would be about being identified? Instead, while faces are concealed, the principle of the ‘environmental portrait’ prevails, and furthermore the device of photographing the subject’s back puts the viewer in their position so that we more strongly feel their reactions to the destruction around them. After all, the ‘creature with no head’ is the Self.

The environmental portrait can be described as a sub-genre of the specifically photojournalistic portrait because the subject is shown in context; this is where the photographic portrait aligns most closely with the textual portrait where the interactions and surroundings of the subject become more important than their appearance. How important, in that last novel you read, was the appearance of the main protagonist? By ‘photojournalistic portrait’ I mean one concerned primarily with the story, the narrative.

In this era we can be forensically identified by traces of DNA that we leave lying about, and law enforcement agencies have long relied more on fingerprints than on mug shots as evidence. The photographic portrait then, to be ‘creative and original’, must be about much more than faces, must surely go beyond the transcription of ‘likeness’ that it achieves with ease, and find more convincing ways of conveying the identities, contexts and stories of its subject.

5 thoughts on “August 19: Faceless

  1. A fascinating exploration of genre conventions and their continuing grip on our understanding (and misunderstanding) of photographic history and practice. Like the rest of this blog, the discussion begins with a specific example before setting out on a conceptual dérive which is elegantly concluded. I will certainly be encouraging my students to explore the contents of this site as they shape their own personal investigations. Wonderful stuff!


    1. Thank you, I welcome your students, whose work that I see posted on Twitter inspires my awe. Some brilliant teaching, and learning, is going on at Thomas Tallis School!


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